From the Bookshelf
by Nicolas Juzda
There are two difficulties facing anyone daring enough to attempt to review the collected edition of Alan Moore's Watchmen. The first is that the work is so rich and multifaceted as to make the task seem daunting in the extreme. That obstacle I shall boldly face down by doing the best job I can and hoping that all that I omit will be made apparent to the reader by the work itself. The second challenge is that, as much as there is to say, so much has already been said. I doubt any single trade paperback published by DC has had its contents as thoroughly and repeatedly analyzed. So, if the addition of my own commentary to the available literature seems pointless or redundant, I beg the pardon of whatever small readership I possess.
We are dealing here with Watchmen, a collection of a twelve-issue series from the late 1980s. It is worth noting that each of the twelve issues ran a full thirty-two pages (including the text pages, which are reprinted in the collection) and that the front and back covers (I think the dripping blood pages were originally the back covers) are also included at full size. That makes over four hundred pages. All this and an original cover for just under thirty dollars Canadian and about twenty American; prices do vary on various printings. Substantially older printings were about twenty-five percent cheaper and some may have a different cover (showing an extreme close-up of the smiley face button's eye rather than the broken window).
Thirty bucks ain't cheap, even for four hundred pages, but as ever it's what the quality of the material is that makes or breaks the value, so let's take a look inside.
The story centres around a world where a handful of non-powered costumed crime fighters debuted in the 1940s, followed by four more in the 1960s and one genuine super-powered being. The presence of these characters has vastly effect the rest of the world, from the outcome of the Vietnam War to the prevalence of pirate comic books instead of super-heroes (why read about stuff that you see in real life?). In the time the story is set, the late 80s, the heroes have mostly retired, but the murder of one of their number sets in motion a chain of events that brings them all together again.
You learn most of that in the first issue or two, but I wouldn't spoil more of the plot of Watchmen than that.
Which leaves me with the question of what I can actually provide further commentary on. Fortunately, I'm a professional reviewer (well, except for the getting paid part of being a professional, alas) and can talk around that.
I'll start with one of the more well-known pieces of trivia about the book. The six main characters were all based upon heroes published by Charlton Comics. Rorschach is a counterpart to the Question, Nite Owl is a take-off on Blue Beetle, Dr. Manhattan is an alternative Captain Atom, and so on. The story goes that Watchmen was actually going to feature the Charlton characters, who DC had just acquired, but it was decided that they would be made into a viable part of the DC Universe instead, and so substitutes were created.
I think that this was a best-of-both-worlds solution, actually. Like Marvel's delightful Squadron Supreme series in which a thinly disguised Justice League take over the world, the characters were recognizable enough that the audience had a built-in sympathy for them. This might actually be untrue of the audience at the time, I suppose, since the Charlton characters were fairly obscure then; their subsequent careers in the DC Universe may have increased their reputations to the point where only later would they actually be well-known. Be that as it may, the pre-existing Charlton characters leant substance to the Watchmen versions, allowing the reader to subconsciously fill them in.
Conversely, the freedom of actually creating new characters allowed Moore to better tailor them to suit the narrative. From the details of their origins to even the thematic value of their names, he was free to design them for maximum effectiveness without being forced to follow anything he didn't like.
Finally, as a consequence of the characters both being and not being pre-existing, that this work is a commentary on other works and an entire genre is underscored. Again, Squadron Supreme provides a parallel.
The subject of characters brings up another point. It must be admitted that Moore does not give all of his protagonists equal play. Of the six primary heroes, only three are really well defined. Granted, the Comedian has just died when the story begins, so in his case the lack of depth is understandable even with him being granted an entire issue worth of flashbacks.
Rorschach, the hero who takes it upon himself to investigate the murder, is brought to life quite vividly, his lack of dimension being the entire point of the character and no detriment to his effectiveness. Moore expressed chagrin in Les Daniels' DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes that a character designed to expose the sordid and depressing side of being a costumed hero has become so beloved. But Rorschach's uncompromising dedication to his crusade makes him fascinating, while his squalid aspects lend him reality. And his "voice" is certainly distinctive and compelling.
Dr. Manhattan's even-more-unusual take on reality is similarly well-explored. His characterization is not true-to-life, but it's not supposed to be. He isn't human, and his bizarre actions and reactions drive that home constantly.
Given the preceding two characters, it's not hard to understand why it's the presence of Nite Owl that provides much of the story's humanity. He is a truly realistic character, in the sense that one can honestly see normal people acting like him. In some ways, that may make him one of Moore's greater achievements here: a super-hero who actually seems like a real person. That, unlike the other five, his "spotlight" issue does not tell us his life story makes this all the more impressive.
On the other hand, I found Silk Specter to be rather one dimensional, existing mostly as an adjunct to the various men she is involved with during the course of the narrative.
Finally, Ozymandias is kept largely off-stage for almost the entire story, and when he finally does appear it is too late to give him particular depth. He's got some good lines and an ideological drive to rival Rorschach's, but one never feels one truly understands him as one does Rorschach.
One of the clues we are given to understand Ozymandias is a reference to the aforementioned pirate comics. Watchmen features a series of excerpts from Tales of the Black Freighter, a fictitious pirate comic. This serves various purposes, from the thematic parallels with Ozymandias to exploring the backdrop of this world to commenting on the narrative at various points. It also is, in fact, a fairly nifty pirate comic on its own terms. And how often do you get to read pirate comics? Not a lot of Captain Fear stories coming out of DC these days, I'll tell you that.
So, I understand intellectually the various purposes of the pirate comic. But, on a personal level, I do find it a distraction that interrupts the flow of the main narrative.
However, the extract from Tales of the Black Freighter does indisputably serve to add nuance to the tale's ending. In the final issue, the characters are all forced to make a decision, and all but one agree. That this is the majority viewpoint (and has been expressed rather eloquently and at length) might make it appear to the casual reader that Moore is himself endorsing it. But upon closer inspection, there are two points that undermine that and reveal that this is not meant to be the "correct" choice (which doesn't mean it's the incorrect choice, of course!) but simply the one that these characters would make under the circumstances. The first is the reference to the pirate comic, a story about good intentions and where they lead. The second is the identity of the dissenter, who is one of the characters the audience is most likely to feel attached to and agree with.
Some elements of the world of Watchmen may seem dated. Most importantly, the United States and Soviet Union are no longer in a Cold War. However, it is important to remember that in 1986, they weren't exactly in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, either. If Watchmen is to be considered dated, then it was dated even when it was new.
That this past-as-present approach was deliberate is obvious from the inclusion of Richard Nixon serving his fourth term of office during the story. An interesting parallel can be drawn with the present-as-future approach Frank Miller used in The Dark Knight Returns, where he presented Ronald Reagan as president, but that's beyond the scope of this article. The question we are dealing with here is why Moore chose this route.
The explanation could simply be that the world he has created has, due to the changes wrought by the heroes, logically developed more slowly in some respects than it did in reality. The Cold War was escalated by Dr. Manhattan, while Nixon rode the victory in Vietnam into a longer presidency, with the Comedian covering up Watergate. Because there are many elements of this world that are futuristic, such as the electric cars and airships, and others still that are simply different, like the haircuts and oddly-shaped pipes, that some things happen to be hold-overs from earlier times is not quite as significant as it might have been. To take too much note of this aspect would be to ignore the context the rest of the details provide.
Besides, Watchmen is not a story about the Cold War. It is about people and what drives them. The tension on the global scene both echoes that and also effects the story, with the higher stakes in turn throwing the protagonists' actions into even sharper relief. It is that, the heroes' decisions during this crisis, that is truly important, not the politics behind it all.
The text pages that end each of the first eleven chapters are usually four pages long, but they're six in the first. By and large these are interesting ways of fleshing out the world, and on a couple of occasions they actually give clues to the main plot. It's an interesting technique, and leaving the comic book medium allows Moore to approach the subject from other angles. On the other hand, there is a degree of pointless cuteness to some of them, and I found the one for chapter seven quite dull.
There is some sexual content. Heck, there's a character who spends most of the book naked and at least three sex scenes. I'm not going to comment on those, save to say that I don't think they're particularly meant to incite lust. My point is just that parents should have a look at the book before allowing young children at it.
A final point of note concerning the writing is that Watchmen is a very carefully crafted work. The story's over-all structure is symmetric, there are patterns in events, parallel and recurring elements, juxtapositions that allow one plotline to comment on another, and so on. Even the quotes that provide the chapter titles usually have at least two significant connections to the contents.
Some people prefer a looser writing style. The constant demonstrations of Moore's ability to interweave and interconnect what he is doing may seem artificial to them.
I'm not one of those people. I find these touches, virtually unheard of in mainstream American comic books (other than Moore, Neil Gaiman is the only author to regularly attempt such tricks on this scale), are one of the things that make Watchmen worth reading again and again.
Having said as much as I dare about the story, I'll move on before I give away more than I already have. Hopefully, the art will prove safer ground. Dave Gibbons is the story's penciller and inker, and my commentary on his work promises to be every bit as complimentary as what I said about Moore's.
Watchmen uses a modified nine-panel grid. The nine-panel grid isn't to everyone's taste. But as someone who lived through the early 90s excesses of two-panel pages and splashes and double-splashes, I find it incredibly refreshing to read comics that are willing to use smaller panels. Artists who function in this sort of condition are true craftsmen, willing to advance the story and not just their own reputations.
Of course, it's not just the smaller panels that have earned the nine-panel criticism, but also the alleged rigidity and repetitiveness of such a scheme. I'd argue with both points.
First, while some people, such as Keith Giffen during his tenure on Legion of Super-Heroes (fourth series), use the nine-panel grid with no variation (though Giffen occasionally used splashes as well), Gibbons is not afraid to vary it. Occasionally, he merges what would be adjacent panels in a nine-panel grid into larger rectangles, and on rare occasions he divides them into two equal rectangles. On one occasion, the thirteenth page of chapter one, he very subtly goes beyond that, making a row of four equally wide panels.
Having sat through my boring technical recitation, you're entitled to know my point. It is this: when the nine-panel's rigidity would be a detriment to the story, Gibbons throws it out!
As to the repetition of panels of the same size and layout being repetitive, I contend that that is precisely the point. Identical panel size and layout creates continuity of experience. The reader is drawn into this world because the view is constant.
How does the variation from the grid fit into that constancy? In the best possible way. By destroying it for effect. A larger panel suddenly seems too large to the reader, creating something apparently either very large or very close. Thus Dr. Manhattan can seem gigantic or Nite Owl can suddenly seem only feet away.
Hey, if I can't discuss plot, I'll resort to medium theory.
Another interesting choice is that, with the exception of one panel in issue twelve, there are no motion lines nor afterimages in this book. Actually, bullets are something of an exception, but otherwise that's true. All the images are single motionless seconds in time.
The effect is again a heightened realism, once one becomes accustomed to it. While a few people used to the intensive motion effects of typical American (and, for that matter, Japanese) comics may not be able to adjust successfully to this approach, those that do will find that it's an intriguing alternative.
One nice thing these static shots do is show smoke and steam held static, as well as liquids. From an arc of blood when Ozymandias fends off an assassin serving as the real-life "speed line" of his attack to the water pouring off the Owlship as it emerges from the lake, these are used creatively and with a beauty all the more effective for this technique's rarity in American comics. I believe, though I am no expert, that it is more common in European comics.
And of course when there finally is a traditional comic book visual technique to display motion, it's all the more effective because of its uniqueness.
Finally, because it's an obvious point and I haven't said it yet, Gibbons provides very clear and detailed linework. There are tons of background details, but it doesn't seem cluttered. Occasionally, these even provide clues (like a watch in chapter eleven) that are neither too subtle to be found nor too obvious to be ignored.
The recurring images in the story (like the series' trademark smiley face) are neat, but I fear that sometimes they are used without significance or purpose beyond simply being recurring images for their own sake. It could be a way of signalling that everything is interconnected, but that's really giving the author and artist carte blanche to make anything they want significant.
Finally, a note on John Higgins' colouring is in order.
It must be borne in mind that this work was produced before the fancy modern colouring techniques we see today had come into large-scale usage. For its time, the colouring of Watchmen was quite high quality; this is not dot-based four colours, but if you just won't settle for anything less than the very fanciest of shading techniques, you'll have to go buy something from Image.
However, within the limits of his time, Higgins does an astounding job. I can't think of any comic book, regardless of colour technology, that pays such attention to lighting. From the neon sign flashing on and off outside Moloch's window when the Comedian visits to the confrontation between Moloch and Rorschach three chapters later lit entirely by an open refrigerator to a prison riot under red emergency lamps, we always know when a scene is being unusually lit.
There's more than lighting to commend Higgins for. The garish colours used for Tales of the Black Freighter contrast with the main narrative quite well. And whenever I picture Mars, I don't see the CGI of Babylon Five or the expensive sets of Total Recall; I picture the reds and oranges and pinks of chapter nine of Watchmen. The view of the Valles Marineris on its nineteenth page is breathtaking, suggesting something immense beyond imagining and just as beautiful captured on two thirds of a piece of paper.
Your mileage may vary, of course. But this is my review column, and that may very well be my favorite single comic book panel ever. So I'm allowed to gush a bit.
Normally I finish by saying whether a book is worth the asking price and what sort of people I think should give it a shot. Here that's easy. Watchmen is among the finest and richest works ever produced in mainstream American comics.
I can't guarantee that it will live up to my hype, or even that you absolutely will enjoy it. But I can't limit its appeal to just one segment of the population. This is not just a book for Moore fans, or Charlton fans, or super-hero fans, or even comic book fans. If ever DC produced a work I would recommend to everyone, this is it.
Sadly, I don't get a commission for shilling DC products. I'm saying this because I believe it. Watchmen is worth the price.
Fiction editor Nicolas Juzda
is currently studying law in Saskatchewan. He fills the void that was left in
his soul by contributing to Fanzing. He has twice been among the winners in
the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for bad writing.
All characters are © DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Nicolas Juzda
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